“Everyone tells their own coming-to story. That’s the rule. Everyone’s creation story is their own.”
Fifteen-year-old Frenchie is a survivor, the last remaining member of his family after seeing his brother snatched by the government. In a near-future where the world is falling apart thanks to the results of global warming, society is also plagued by a new problem. People have forgotten how to dream, and this dreamlessness is slowly driving them mad. Only the Indigenous population retains the ability to dream, and it is their bone marrow that seems to hold the key to why they have not succumbed to this new plague. As the madness spreads, the government takes a page from history, and begins herding the remaining First Nations people into facilities modeled on residential schools, where their marrow is harvested at the cost of their lives. The few who remain free push northward into the wilderness, trying outrun the reach of the government. But a confrontation with the Recruiters is inevitable, and one day there will be nowhere left to run.
The Marrow Thieves opens with Frenchie’s coming-to story, a flashback that recounts how he came to be on the run in the northern bush, and who he was before the plague came. The bulk of the story is set in the bush, but several of the characters in the party share their own coming-to stories over the course of the book. There are also bits of Story mixed in, times when the elders Miig and Minerva pass down their knowledge to the youth that they are taking north. Hearing Story is both a privilege and a responsibility to become the carriers of their heritage going forward into an uncertain future. So much has already been lost, or deliberately stripped away, and the kids cling to the little bits of Story and language that remain to them, that help them understand who they are, and why they are hunted. It is their weakness, but also their truth, and their power.
Using a futuristic echo of the residential school system, The Marrow Thieves examines how Canada might repeat the horrors of the past by failing to acknowledge or reconcile with them. The science fiction element of extracting dreams from bone marrow is not deeply explored in a technical sense. Rather, the bone marrow becomes a powerful metaphor for what has been taken from Indigenous peoples, as well as the appropriation of their culture by those who have already taken their land, their resources, their homes, and their families, and are still not satisfied by the destruction they have wrought. It is a gut-churning portrayal entitlement.
Despite the dark premise, and the threat that Frenchie and his friends are facing, I still found an abundance of hope in The Marrow Thieves. Although they are on the run, the characters still build lives, families, and friendships. They care for Minerva, who has deep roots to the culture, but who would not be strong enough to run on her own. They protect little RiRi, the youngest of their group, slowly helping her to understand what things were like before her birth, and what has been done to their people since then. Miig mourns the husband that he lost, but finds his purpose in protecting and teaching the youth who are left. And Frenchie and Rose are clumsily falling in love, haltingly trying to figure out themselves, and one another, and what it means to love in a world like the one they were born into.
The Marrow Thieves was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by R&B singer-songwriter Jully Black. Back on Day One, Black championed The Marrow Thieves as a hopeful book that acknowledges the power of the youth voice, and the importance of hearing Indigenous stories and understanding Canada’s original injustice. During her Day Three opening, she said that she felt the book was more important than ever in light of the breaking news that Pope Francis is refusing to issue an apology for the role of the Catholic Church in the abuses of the residential school system, despite the recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The Marrow Thieves has had a tough row to hoe on Canada Reads 2018 from Day One. As the only Young Adult book in the competition, panelists repeatedly singled it out, recommending it for use in schools, but denying that it could be the “One Book to Open Your Eyes” that adult Canadians need to read. Jully Black argued for the importance of the youth perspective, and further that “the soul has no age.” After the book he was defending, Precious Cargo, was eliminated on Day Two, free agent Greg Johnson went so far as to announce that in addition to donating twenty-five copies of Precious Cargo to schools, he was also purchasing twenty-five copies of The Marrow Thieves. He highlighted the hopefulness of the book, and the fact that it was about the kids’ journey to rediscover their history.
During Day One, Jeanne Beker had derided the despair and fear of The Marrow Thieves, arguing that it might alienate readers. The point was raised again on Day Two, and Jully Black challenged her to think about who might be made uncomfortable by the book and why. Tahmoh Penikett defended the book as having resonated with him on many levels, particularly considering his mother’s experiences in the residential school system. However, both Penikett (a science fiction actor) and Mozhdah Jamalzadah expressed that they were taken out of the story by the lack of explanation about how the bone marrow extraction worked. Jully Black argued that the bone marrow was a metaphor, and that we do not need to understand the process in order to connect with what the bone marrow represents. Drawing a parallel to the residential schools, she argued that we do not need to see behind the drywall to the architecture of the school building to know that the system was harmful.
The Day Three debate focused on the differences between memoir and fiction, reading as an enjoyable experience, and compelling characters. These question led the panelists to mostly discuss American War and Forgiveness, with less specific discussion of The Marrow Thieves compared to previous days. When the ballots were cast, Jully Black and Greg Johnson formed an unsurprising alliance, voting against American War. Tahmoh Penikett and Jeanne Beker voted against The Marrow Thieves. This put the final vote in the hands of free agent Mozhdah Jamalzadah, whose choice made The Marrow Thieves the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2018.
And if you loved The Marrow Thieves as much as I did, you might also like The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Indigenous Australian author Ambelin Kwaymullina